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Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot: 5 things you need to know before buying

When you’re on the go with laptops and tablets, you rely on your smartphone for internet access using its Wi-Fi hotspot feature. However, this can quickly drain the battery and use up precious data if you don’t have an unlimited plan.

Fortunately, a dedicated portable Wi-Fi hotspot can be a good alternative if you’re in need of an additional internet connection, allowing you to connect several Wi-Fi-enabled devices at one time and share Wi-Fi with friends and family.

If you’re interested in a portable Wi-Fi hotspot but aren’t sure where to start, you’re in the right place. This article will explain what a Wi-Fi hotspot is, how it works, and some things to consider before buying one.

What is a portable Wi-Fi hotspot?

A Wi-Fi hotspot is one of two things. It can either be a dedicated device that takes a mobile cellular connection and rebroadcasts it as Wi-Fi to multiple devices wirelessly, or you can use your smartphone to act as a mobile hotspot in the same way. In either case, you get to leverage a single mobile connection for several devices that only have Wi-Fi.

Although you can create a hotspot for home internet use, most people use them as secondary connections for when they’re away from home. Portable Wi-Fi hotspots provide more flexibility by letting you connect while on the go. You’ll just need access to a network through a cellular carrier, with some offering fully unlimited and simpler prepaid plans.

Internet speeds on portable Wi-Fi hotspots are typically the same as what’s available to a smartphone on the same network, which can reach over 2000 mbps on 5G.

How do portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices work?

A portable Wi-Fi hotspot device uses a 3G, 4G, or 5G internet connection to create a Wi-Fi network for multiple devices, including tablets, phones, and computers. You can tap into the network to stream your favorite shows, complete school assignments, and do other activities without worrying about loading data onto individual devices.

In essence, a portable Wi-Fi hotspot is a smartphone without a screen or advanced operating system — it only has the ability to take a mobile connection, and create a Wi-Fi network. Portable hotspots have their own battery (of varying sizes), and typically recharge the same way smartphones do over USB.

Do portable Wi-Fi hotspots work anywhere?

To create a mobile hotspot network, you’ll need a cellular data plan from a network provider. That means you’ll only get coverage in places where that specific carrier has a network. Nowadays in the U.S. that’s just about anywhere, outside of the most rural places in the country.

Be sure to check your desired carrier’s coverage maps before buying a hotspot from it. Make note that carriers have different coverage areas depending on whether you’re looking to get 4G or 5G speeds.

5 things to consider before buying a Wi-Fi hotspot device

Are you planning to buy a Wi-Fi hotspot device? If so, there are a few things you should know before deciding on a particular device. These factors include:

  • Wireless carrier limitations
  • Service or wireless network availability
  • The number of connected devices
  • 4G and 5G capabilities
  • Battery life of the Wi-Fi hotspot device

Check limitations with your wireless carrier

If you want to enjoy a quality internet connection, try to choose a provider with the best coverage in your area and the most ample data plans. Wireless carriers offer portable hotspot plans with varying features and coverage. For instance, some data plans come with monthly caps that limit your usage. At the same time, some carriers may offer unlimited data but will cap or throttle your internet speeds after a certain point.

It’ll be easier to choose a hotspot device as long as you’re aware of these conditions or limitations. Just make sure to read the fine print of your data plan, particularly if you plan to engage in data-intensive online activities (e.g., video streaming). You may detect a drop in video quality if your wireless carrier throttles the connection after reaching a certain data limit.

Consider the service availability of your wireless carrier

Depending on your wireless carrier, a portable hotspot may not be the right option. Remote areas generally suffer from sporadic network coverage, making it difficult to establish a stable internet connection using a portable Wi-Fi hotspot.

It’s a good idea to check your carrier’s network availability map to determine whether you can get adequate coverage in specific remote or rural areas. Thankfully, major network providers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have near complete coverage of the U.S.

Urban areas with the best network coverage are usually ideal locations for portable Wi-Fi hotspots.

Check the battery life of your Wi-Fi hotspot device

To ensure you can meet all your internet needs, you’ll want to choose a hotspot device with a long-lasting battery. Some Wi-Fi hotspots are small and sleek, but usually have much shorter battery life as a result — as little as a few hours. The more data you use, and more devices you have connected, the weaker your battery life will be as well.

You may also need to invest in a high-quality power bank to keep your device powered up while on the go. Wi-Fi hotspots charge the same as smartphones, over USB, so you can use a phone charger or battery to keep them going.

3G/4G/5G capabilities

The connectivity capabilities of portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices vary. Some devices can handle 5G connections, while others are only compatible with 4G. These differences in wireless internet technology can also determine the price of the device and plan.

Cheaper Wi-Fi hotspots, like those from prepaid carriers, can often be limited to just 4G or simple 5G networks. They’ll be good enough for most tasks, but will be outpaced by the latest hotspots with 5G connections.

If you invest in a 5G hotspot device, you can enjoy even faster upload and download speeds for all connected devices on your mobile network. This type of wireless technology is more reliable, but you can expect to pay a significantly higher price for a 5G Wi-Fi hotspot device. While 4G hotspot devices are available for less than $100, you may spend several hundred dollars for a 5G version.

How many devices you plan to connect at once

Most Wi-Fi hotspots can handle connecting at least five Wi-Fi devices at once, but higher-end models can handle 10 or more at a time. Most people will be just fine with having only five, though, as battery and bandwidth considerations start to be important beyond that point. If you are going to add several devices to a single hotspot, keep in mind that that will greatly decrease the available data speed for each one. You’ll want to make sure you’re using a 5G hotspot if so.

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